Exhibition of Aloha wear at Honolulu Museum of Art

Aloha wear, its florals and other motifs—whether decorating holokū (gowns), mu‘umu‘u, holomu‘u (fitted dresses) or aloha shirts—are worn and enjoyed by people around the world. Explore the origin story of these famous Hawaiian garments and exports in “Fashioning Aloha,” on view April 12 through September 1, 2024, at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA). The textile exhibition showcases design motifs and narratives spanning almost 90 years. 

“These garments seem simple at first glance, but they contain the history of Hawaiʻi and all the influences that came together to form the creative culture here,” Tory Laitila, curator of textiles and historic arts of Hawaiʻi at HoMA, said. “And a point of pride for us is that it illustrates the story of the people, culture and fashion of Hawai‘i in a very human and relatable way. The designs are ubiquitous, and we hope that now the fascinating stories behind them will become more well-known, too.”

Printed fabric depicting Hawaiian motifs developed in the 1930s and remains prominent today. The local and global design references can signal identity, culture and connection to place. “Fashioning Aloha” showcases attire that was popular among residents and visitors in Hawaiʻi from the mid-20th century to the early 21st century. The exhibition will feature more than 50 garments as well as artworks from HoMA’s collection organized in nine thematic groups: flowers, Polynesian bark cloth, location, Asian motifs, Tahitian pareu, Hawaiian quilts, music, hula and the Hawaiian Kingdom. 

Aloha wear in the exhibition is paired with works that depict similar motifs from the Museum’s collection, such as traditional Polynesian bark cloth, Japanese kimono, a Chinese dragon robe and cheongsam and Hawaiian quilts. By pairing the clothing items with their sources of inspiration, visitors will see how these fashions were a product of the unique mix of cultures, natural resources, economic influences and global trade of Hawaiʻi. Together, those qualities made the region a cultural mediation point between East Asia and North America and a fertile creative ground for clothing designers and fashion entrepreneurs.    

One video in the exhibition will display contemporary and vintage fashion while another will feature photographs submitted by the public, revealing aloha wear’s impact on the community. Residents were invited to share stories and photographs of themselves, their family and friends in aloha wear fashions dating from 1935 to the present.

An interactive area invites visitors to design original fabric motifs. 

History of Aloha Wear

Alfred Shaheen, Holokū (detail), 1960s. Cotton.
Photo courtesy of Honolulu Museum of Art. Alfred Shaheen, Holokū (detail), 1960s. Cotton. Gift of Linda Arthur Bradley, 2023 (2023-04-06)

Aloha wear was part of the success story of the Watumulls, who emigrated from Hyderabad (modern-day Pakistan) and sailed for Honolulu in 1915. The family became the namesakes of the flagship department store Watumull’s (originally the East India Store), and Elsie Jensen Das, a member of the family through marriage, painted tropical designs on raw silk fabrics. Her designs helped establish the retailer as a source for these prints in furnishings and garments starting in the 1930s.

By 1955, Watumulls acquired the Royal Hawaiian Manufacturing Company and began producing clothing, including aloha shirts and muʻumuʻu, classic examples of which will be displayed in the exhibition. 

Visitors will also recognize a Kiilani brand cotton aloha shirt. The garment features one of the most copied floral motifs in the history of aloha wear from the Alfred Shaheen Company (1948-1988). Shaheen, a descendant of Lebanese immigrants, helped popularize aloha wear globally while maintaining Hawaiian relevancy with its designs. 

In 1952, Shaheen’s company started textile printing at its Honolulu plant. The entrepreneur and military veteran gathered a group of artists and designers to study inspirations like original Hawaiian bark cloth at Bishop Museum and other locales in the Pacific and Asia. 

“We’re celebrating an iconic visual that has become a popular fashion staple and originated in Hawai‘i,” Halona Norton-Westbrook, HoMA’s director and CEO, said. “And by examining these items that we’re all so familiar with, we learn more about the culture of Hawaiʻi but also about the archipelago’s impact on consumer fashion during the 20th century. And that nostalgia makes it a fun exploration.” 

The exhibition is made possible in part thanks to a recent acquisition from the collection of Linda Arthur Bradley and loans from Jo Rowley and Vicky and Michael Chock; Kahala Sportswear; Tori Richard, Ltd.; Nakeʻu Awai Designs and others. 

Linda Arthur Bradley, a scholar of the textiles of Hawaiʻi and professor emeritus in Washington State University’s Apparel Merchandising, Design and Textiles department, has collected aloha wear garments during her years of studying, researching and teaching historic textiles and fashion. She is the author of several books, including “Aloha Attire: Hawaiian Dress in the Twentieth Century” (Schiffer Publishing, 1999).

Arthur Bradley was Laitila’s professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in the 1990s. After reconnecting with Laitila, she felt HoMA would be an appropriate home for her collection and offered it as a gift, helping spark the idea for the exhibition. 

Vicky and Michael Chock received a large group of aloha shirts after the passing of their uncle Chilton Au, the host at the famed Hon Kun restaurant in Kaimukī and collector of aloha shirts. The Chocks gave many of the shirts to Rowley, a Hawaiʻi-based artist. 

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